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Where Are Japan’s Policy Entrepreneurs?

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Tokyo Report | Politics | East Asia

Where Are Japan’s Policy Entrepreneurs?

For all the focus on Japan’s ruling LDP, some of Japan’s most influential policy innovators aren’t found within government at all.

Where Are Japan’s Policy Entrepreneurs?

It is said that the most important election for Japan is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election. With Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s decision to not run in the upcoming presidential election (slated for September 29), the number of candidates has blown the race wide open. Pundits and critics have indicated that a major theme is that theories of the LDP factional power balance are doing little to support the public’s understanding of who will be the next prime minister. Rather, as Musha Ryoji suggests, the focus is on policy and the candidates’ policy stances.

In an election where the general public cannot participate, this focus on policy gives the impression that potential prime ministers are policy entrepreneurs, offering Japan innovative policy decisions. But are these candidate the policy entrepreneurs that Japan needs?

Policy entrepreneurs can be simply defined as actors advocating policy alternatives to be taken up on the government’s agenda. They are seen as policy innovators – advancing policy solutions for sometimes yet to-be-seen policy problems. They are considered entrepreneurs in that they are willing to expend significant personal resources in pursuit of their agenda as well as exhibiting social nous and acuity – in other words, they know to whom to speak and how to effectively frame their policies. Japan has its share of policy entrepreneurs that fit this bill, albeit a limited one.

Thus, an embedded consensus-building and the dominance of the central bureaucracy in Japan’s policymaking process would suggest that prime ministers would make poor policy entrepreneurs. Koizumi Junichiro is the stand-out example, as he staked his political career on the privatization of Japan’s postal savings system, but this was eventually rolled back when a prime ministers born from a different LDP faction became party president. Ph.D. candidate Daniel Clausen recently argued that although Japanese prime ministers have informal powers to support innovative policymaking, a prime minster will most likely try to leave their legacy in foreign policy. Abe Shinzo left his first stint as prime minster having achieved little in terms of social welfare policy but did manage to boost Japan’s defense force agency to ministry status.

So how do the current candidates fare on policy innovation? Kishida Fumio’s experience as the former chair of the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council did little to help him in the 2020 presidential election. This time around he is being vocal on taking a new direction in Japan’s fight to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also often seen waving his “policy notebook” in front of the media, but refuses to disclose what is inside.

Leading presidential candidate Kono Taro’s recent reversal on his long-standing anti-nuclear policy to appease factional interests is an indication of the informal limitations prime ministers will face in the policymaking process. Like many politicians approaching an election, the policies advocated may appear innovative, but are really low-hanging fruit to curry favor with the public. Similar to Koizumi’s run at the presidency, Kono is bringing to the election a policy pet project for digital reform. He had been relatively quiet on the issue in past months, only to revive this interest in time for the party election.

Similarly, prior to assuming his first ministerial post, Koizumi Shinjiro, who is widely considered as a future prime minister, was the leading spokesperson of a 100-plus cross-party parliamentary study group advocating for both legislative and administrative reforms. And in July, Prime Minister Suga’s announcement of creating a “Children’s Ministry” was also seen as a policy ploy to boost support for the LDP in the Tokyo council election.

These anecdotal examples tell us little about Japan’s broader potential for policy entrepreneurship and involvement in the policymaking process. Indeed, they reveal a number of problems. The first is that most views of policy entrepreneurship become narrowly focused on the prime minister and, by association, their “policy agendas,” which are typically foreign policy-related. Second, while the policies themselves appear “innovative,” they may lack substance or immediate value to the public, and instead resemble posturing for electoral success. Third, even without the media’s sudden shift of focus toward the LDP presidential election, we can suggest that the advocacy of an alternative policy agenda is located almost entirely in the conservative mainstream of Japanese politics.

So, can we look to other areas for policy entrepreneurs and innovative policies? There are a number of examples that suggest so.

The first example is the Academy for Gender Parity, or Parite in Japanese, a non-profit organization located in central Tokyo. It is by name and by nature an institution established to broaden women’s participation in the political process. Japan has typically high barriers to running for public office and the political field is significantly slanted toward men. Parite aims to even Japan’s low rate of female lawmakers and representatives. It is affiliated with a number of NGOs in both Japan (e.g., the Sasakawa Peace Foundation) and abroad (e.g., the Center for American Women and Politics).

Parite has found recent public exposure thanks to the media presence of key members, like Professors Miura Mari and Shin Kiyon. The organization played a significant role in the promulgation of the Law Related to the Promotion of Gender Equality in the Field of Politics in 2018, for which Miura was recognized by the French Consulate in Japan.

To increase the amount of women in public office, leadership, and policymaking roles, Parite runs an academy for socializing women into policymaking practices, the policymaking process, as well as electoral participation. Often, high-profile female lawmakers (such as Noda Seiko), lawyers, and academics will participate as lecturers in the academy’s classes, passing on their insight and know-how.

Incidentally, Takaichi Sanae – a candidate in the LDP presidential election – is also a graduate of a similar style of academy for aspiring politicians and “leaders” – the Matsushita Institute for Government and Management (Matsushita Seikei Juku, MSJ). Established in 1979 by Panasonic founder Matsushita Konosuke, the MSJ ran extensive, campus-based educational courses for men and women as an alternative entrypoint to electoral campaigns through the traditional koenkai style. Although it counts only one prime minister (Noda Yoshihiko) among its alumni, the MSJ nevertheless has produced a number of well-known lawmakers in both local and central politics. In recent years, the MSJ’s membership has declined, while contemporary politicians have developed their own brand of “pared-down” political academies (seiji juku), with fewer contact hours and more affordable fees. While politician-led political academy models and goals vary across the country, Parite is but one variant making strong appeals to women of the general public who may desire to contribute to the policymaking process.

The second example is the aptly named Policy Entrepreneur’s Platform (PEP), formed by the Asia Pacific Initiative (API) think tank in July of 2020. The PEP’s stated aim is to “develop a community of policy entrepreneurs … through experienced entrepreneurs and academics with policy know-how, and, in spreading that notion, create an environment that envelopes policy specialists in lively policy debates.”

The PEP is fronted by nine relatively young core members, who exhibit the qualities of the organization’s aims. For example, Ernst & Young Japan’s 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year, Kobayashi Rin (47), spent six years preparing the United World College (now ISAK Japan), an international high school in Karuizawa offering scholarships to young leaders from more than 80+ countries. Another is Komazaki Hiroki (42), who focuses on social policy, particularly childcare and parental involvement. Having served on a number of central government committees (e.g., the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s “Parental Father Project) as well as NPO committees, Komazaki developed a number of innovative childcare programs since taken up by the metropolitan government (e.g., the “Your Home Childcare”).

The API itself is no stranger to policy entrepreneurs, as its two co-founders fit comfortably into that description. The PEP has its early roots in the publication of co-founder Funabashi Yoichi’s monograph on think tanks in 2019. Where Japan once trailed in the number of think tanks per capita, it is slowly increasing such institutional presence and through them developing a policy market that can challenge the central bureaucracy for innovative policy ideas. Indeed, Sebastian Maslow has recently suggested that changes to Japan’s think tank environment indicate the development of a burgeoning policy marketplace.

The API’s other co-founder, James Akira Kondo, is a policy entrepreneur par-excellence. A former management consultant for McKinsey and Co. Japan, and core member of McKinsey’s global strategy group, Kondo has long been active in medical policy and technical innovation. He founded the Health and Global Policy Institute in 2004, acted as co-chair of Silicon Valley Platform Japan as well senior advisor to Geodesic Capital and once served as the chairman of Twitter Japan. He has also served as councilor to the government of Japan and the Cabinet Office.

Finally, the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism, or Shimin Rengo for short, is a network organization connecting social activists and academics with the national opposition parties. Shimin Rengo acts as an outlet for policy and electoral cooperation between the opposition parties. The organization centralizes the advocacy of progressive democratic policies. On September 8, the Shimin Rengo met with the opposition parties (excluding the Japan Restoration Party) to reaffirm their criticisms of the ruling party’s ongoing controversies and handling of the coronavirus situation, and to propose outlines for policies covering social welfare, coronavirus response, gender equality, and the environment. Where policy entrepreneurs advocate “alternative policy agendas,” the use of “Choice” (Sentakushi) as the group’s slogan reflects their criticism of the ruling party’s appropriation of the government for its own purposes and ignoring the needs of the public. Where Shimin Rengo finds its strength in policy advocacy is not just as a mouthpiece for opposition parties but its networked organization. Shimin Rengo is made up of a mix of grassroots policy advocacy groups, such as pacifist group Sogakari and the pacifist social welfare group (Mothers Against War).

One such social activist group that significantly raised awareness for and encouraged youth political participation is the SEALD (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) group. Although they disbanded in 2016, through much of their two-year existence SEALD was the frontline of protest against the former Abe government, acting as a vanguard for a plethora of special interest protest groups. Indeed, it was under the energetic auspices of SEALD that Japan saw its largest public demonstration in front of the Diet in 2015. Some former SEALD members now find themselves as a prominent youth contingent of the Shimei Rengo as it lends its policy support to Japan’s opposition, while engaging in social community-building activities with citizens.

In conclusion, these examples of alternative policy entrepreneurs to Japan’s LDP offer a number of takeaways on the state of policymaking in Japan. The first is that policy entrepreneurship is not limited to the conservative domain of mainstream Japanese politics. Rather, policy innovation is located also in the progressive and liberal side as well, not to mention the grassroots. Second, the innovative insights into creating alternative policy agendas are not limited to advocacy within the institutional domain of central government. Instead, we can see that it is moving through Japanese society through networked activity. In other words, we must also look toward organizational policy entrepreneurship as well as individuals. Finally, the development of organized and networked policy entrepreneurship indicates the development of an inchoate policy market. This policy market may provide an alternative source of policy ideas, which lawmakers can use to challenge the dominance of the central bureaucracy.